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Cursus Honorum

The central political power in Rome was the senate. It was hierarchically organised.
The decisions made by the senate were effectively decided only by those senators
who had previously held the highest offices as well as the biggest number of offices.
So it was the ambition of a young Roman to get as far on the Cursus Honorum, the
prescribed sequential order of public offices, as possible.
Cursus Honorum

01 The seat of power: The senate

The central political power in Rome was the senate.

View of the Roman Forum, Rome. Photo: BeBo86 /
Cursus Honorum

02 Rome’s legendary first consul

Allegedly, it was Lucius Iunius Brutus who founded the senate.
According to legend, he dethroned Rome’s last king in 510
BC. In the aftermath, the Roman Republic was proclaimed and
the state power transferred to the magistrates. As the story
goes, the Romans elected Brutus to be their first consul
because they deeply admired him. However, this rendering
of history is not supportable in view of more recent

So-called Brutus on modern bust. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo:

Wikicommons / Jastrow.
Cursus Honorum

03 The attributes of power

Still, this coin here depicts him as consul in full official attire,
framed by lictors carrying the fasces. The accensus, a kind of
crier, leads the procession and clears the way for the consul.

Denarius of M. Iunius Brutus, 54. Obverse: Libertas. Reverse: First

consul Lucius Iunius Brutus, surrounded by his lictors.
Cursus Honorum

04 The state is the senate

The senate had such a long-standing tradition that the
common people regarded it as the embodiment of state
power and, accordingly, treated it with considerable respect.
This close relationship finds expression in the established
initialism SPQR, senatus populusque romanus, which, in
translation, means ‘The senate and people of Rome’.

The abbreviation is even today ubiquitous in Rome. Source:

Wikicommons / Philippe Remacle/shizhao;
Cursus Honorum

05 To the top
In theory, the possibility to begin a political career with the
office of quaestor was open to every Roman. Once you
climbed higher on the ladder of success, the available
positions became scarcer. The first obstacle, however, were
the financial costs: To win the electorate’s favour and increase
chances on an election victory, candidates spent enormous
sums of money. It took many years before those who had
made it to the office of praetor could even begin to hope
that their power as policymaker in Rome or governor of a
province would eventually enable them to pay off their
debts. The system was practically predetermined to force
ambitious men into abusing their office and exploiting their

Office pyramid of the Cursus Honorum.

Cursus Honorum

06 Regulating the path of honour

A highly explosive political subject was the question how
promotion to higher offices could be earned. In this context,
dictator Sulla established the Cursus Honorum in 81 BC. This
regulation strictly prescribed the order in which political
offices could be held.

Effigy of an anonymous person, usually identified with Sulla.

Glyptothek, Munich. Photo: Wikicommons / Bibi Saint-Pol.
Cursus Honorum

07 Financial ruin or success

This turned out to be a serious problem for all those young
men who had invested a lot of money to reach the lower
ranks, but then failed to be promoted to higher ranks, which
was practically the only way to earn the invested money back.
Catiline was one of these men. Twice he missed the chance to
be elected consul. The political failure meant his financial
ruin. Social decline was imminent. Perhaps the only reason
behind Catiline conspiracy, made famous by Cicero’s speech.

Cicero denouncing Catiline. Historicising fresco by Cesare Maccari,

Cursus Honorum

08 Games for the people

The first hurdle was being elected aedile or tribunus plebis,
tribune of the people. Of the 20 quaestors, 10 men from a
Plebeian background could rise to the position of tribune,
four of Patrician descent to the rank of aedile. As shown on
this coin, tribunes sat on the subsellium, the bench on the
rostra, when executing their office. The warship rams, which
gave the rostra – as the speaker’s platform was called in
ancient Rome – its name (rostrum = warship ram), are clearly
recognisable below.

Denarius of Lollius Palikanus, 45. Obverse: Libertas. Reverse: Subsellium

above rostra, seat of the tribune.
Cursus Honorum

09 The insignia of power

Out of 20 quaestors, not more than two made it to the office
of consul. In fact, chances were even worse because
prominent politicians prided themselves with holding the
office more than one term. Sella curulis (curule seat) and
fasces (bundle of wooden rods) were the perfect symbols to
promote yourself by referring to the fact that one of your
ancestors had once held a prestigious political office.

Denarius of L. Furius Brocchus, 63. Obverse: Ceres. Reverse: Curule

seat and fasces of a magistrate.
Cursus Honorum

10 Power is visible
Outside the sacred boundary of the city of Rome, lictors also
carried axes inside the fasces. They served as reminder that,
in the state of war, consuls had the right to have even Roman
citizens executed.

Drawing of a lictor from Cesare Vecellio’s (1521–1601) ‘Habiti antichi

et moderni’. Source: Wikicommons / Shiono Nanami.
Cursus Honorum

11 Strength in unity
The ancient Roman fasces (bundle of wooden rods) have
been used since then until the modern times. Not only
Napoleon made use of them but also the followers of Benito

Coat of arms of the Suisse Canton of St Gallen (official coat of arms

since 2011). Source: Wikicommons.
Cursus Honorum

12 L. Dudistius Novanus for instance

Although, technically, priesthood was not among the offices
of the Cursus Honorum, it was a highly prestigious office and
could definitely advance an official’s career. This inscription
for instance reveals that Roman cavalier Lucius Dudistius
Novanus had not only served as procurator of the Cottian
Alps, but also as flamen.

Roman inscription from the Roman city of Massilia (modern-day

Marseille). Musée Calvet, Avignon. Photo: Wikicommons / Rossignol
Benoît /
Cursus Honorum

13 No mon, no fun
Only the wealthiest Roman citizens could afford a political
career as the inferior offices of the Cursus Honorum were not
rewarded financially. A young candidate running for one of
the offices needed to use his money strategically. One
possibility for a candidate was taking on a priestly office and,
in this function, entertaining the Roman people royally. Those
who had made it far enough to be aediles could ingratiate
themselves with the people by generously topping up the
budget of the games, which they were responsible for, with
private funds.

Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872. Phoenix Art Museum. Photo:

Wikicommons /